Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book.
A recent (2018) book by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?, has garnered great reviews. It’s a brave book, telling the story of the death of her six-year-old son from a long illness, and then her husband in a hiking accident, both in the space of about a year. It’s been almost thirty years since these tragedies, and the reader gets the sense that it took her this long to tell the story. Or rather, to weave her story of loss together with the place of religion in her life, and our collective lives.
I admire the book, but I have a problem with it. She seems unaware that people who are not well-off and famous might have a different experience of loss. She aims to be realistic about the politics of religious belief, but perhaps there is also a politics of loss, or better a political economy of loss. About this she says not a word.
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It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.
Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect. Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them. Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity.
I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are. One is a selection from Plato’s Republic. Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.
After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon.
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